The torn ACL. Just reading the name of the injury can send shivers down the spine of anyone who’s suffered one. For years, it’s been known as one of the most devastating injuries in sports and it affects a crucial part of the body for a basketball player.
In the NBA, you need healthy, stable knees, supported by strong muscle above and below the joint, to be able to cut, run, jump and more on a hardwood floor against the best athletes in the world.
Max Benton, the head athletic trainer for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2001-2013, discussed the injury on NBA.com:
To begin, the ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, provides stability for sports, such as basketball, tennis, or skiing where an athlete uses rotational movement (changing directions while moving). In fact, it provides 90% of stability to the knee joint. It is the smallest of the four main ligaments in the knee, but it is the main stabilizer for rotational movement. Ligaments, like the ACL, connect bone-to-bone, and the ACL connects the femur (thighbone) with the tibia (shinbone). Without the ACL, the knee would be unstable and would dislocate during activities with any amount of twisting.
Tearing the ACL can (and in some cases, has) limit a player’s ability to do those things. That’s why seeing a promising, young player go down with a torn ACL is so tough. It can lead to a big ol’ “what if.”
Parker went down just 25 games into his rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks, after averaging 12.3 points. He was the second-leading scorer in the rookie class at the time of his injury (behind Andrew Wiggins‘s 12.8 through December 15).
Exum made it all the way through his first campaign, starting 41 games at point guard. He led both the Utah Jazz and the entire rookie class in FATS Wins Added, thanks in large part to the size, athleticism and effort he brought to the defensive end:
FATS differential/wins added for Jazz this season.
Alternate title: I love Elijah Millsap. pic.twitter.com/EMtaMfczLs
— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) April 25, 2015
The silver lining for both Parker and Exum could be youth, as history holds a few examples of players who were able to fully recover, with all the explosiveness they had prior to the injury. Examples of careers coming to a halt following the injury are out there as well.
Just over a year ago, the ACL Recovery Club posted a list of NBA players who’ve suffered a torn ACL. Both of the above, and a few in between, are represented:
— ACL Recovery Club (@ACLrecoveryCLUB) May 22, 2014
Modern medicine and training techniques should afford Exum and Parker with a better opportunity to come all the way back than some of their predecessors, but nothing’s guaranteed.
Without dwelling too much on the negative, it’s worth noting that the ACL tear has basically, and in some cases, totally, ended careers. In other cases, it’s reduced the player to a shell of his previous self or forced him to completely adjust to a new style of play.
Billy Cunningham, a five-time All-Star with a career scoring average of 21.2, never played another game in the NBA after tearing his ACL in 1975. Doug Collins played a total of 12 games after tearing his in 1980.
As you can see with Redd and Howard, the ACL injury often leads to continued complications and the chance to re-aggravate or re-injure the knee, which brings us to Derrick Rose.
It may be too early to call his story a horror, and he still has time to move to the next section of this article, but at the moment things look bleak.
Following the torn ACL in 2012, Rose’s player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage and assist percentage all took a dive, while his turnover percentage went up.
Reduced explosiveness has led to an increased reliance on jump shooting, as evidenced by the percentage of his attempts that come from beyond 10 feet.
|3-Pt Field Goals|
|% of FGA by Distance||Corner|
Last season, his average field goal attempt was 14.2 feet from the rim, nearly four feet further out than his rookie campaign. You could say that’s a sign of growth, if not for his plummeting percentages.
Again, if Rose can adjust, rely more on change of pace instead of pure speed and improve his jumper, there’s still time for this story to have a happier ending.
Made it Back, but Not the Same
Moving on to a somewhat cheerier subject, there are thsose who were able to return to NBA action following the ACL injury, though not at quite the same level.
Perhaps the most inspiring case is that of Shaun Livingston. Just as the No. 4 pick of the 2004 draft was starting to gain some momentum and adapt to the NBA, he suffered a gruesome knee injury in 2007, rendering him one of the biggest “what ifs” of the last couple decades.
The Associated Press report from the night of the injury (via ESPN) reads like a medical handbook:
‘It’s probably the most serious injury you can have to the knee,’ Clippers physician Dr. Tony Daly said Tuesday. ‘He might miss all of next year.’
Livingston had an MRI exam Tuesday which revealed tears in the anterior cruciate ligament, posterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and lateral meniscus.
He also dislocated his patella, besides the previously diagnosed dislocation of his tibia-femoral.
It’s been a long road back from that nightmare for Livingston, who’s found a place as a very solid backup point guard, who helped the Golden State Warriors win a title last season.
In his last two seasons, one of which was with the Brooklyn Nets, Livingston appeared in 154 games and averaged 11.4 points and 5.3 assists per 36 minutes, while shooting 49 percent from the field.
In the six seasons between those most recent campaigns and the injury, Livingston was on six different teams and averaged just under 41 appearances per year.
And finally, some reasons for Parker and Exum to smile.
It’s easy to forget a few players on the ACL Recovery Club list even suffered the injury at all. The comeback was that successful for them.
Tim Hardaway tore his in 1993, and though he was never quite as productive afterward, he still made two more All-Star teams. Jamal Crawford joined the club in 2001, but has averaged over 16 points since and won two Sixth Man of the Year awards. Kyle Lowry, who went down while at Villanova, has developed into an All-Star point guard. Corey Brewer, David West and Iman Shumpert have all more or less come back the same as well.
Perhaps the most underappreciated case here is that of Tony Allen, who tore his ACL in 2007. Because a player’s effectiveness and explosiveness is so often judged in terms of offense, Allen’s recovery flew under the radar.
To be an exceptional perimeter defender, lateral explosiveness is critical. And when Allen is defensive sliding to stay in front of ball-handlers or recovering for steals or blocks, it’s clear he has that. He’s been All-Defense four times (First Team three times) since the injury.
Parker and Exum
Age is an important factor to consider in the cases of Parker and Exum. Many of the players who fully recovered, with little to no hitch in their giddy-up upon return, suffered the torn ACL in their early- to mid-20s.
Parker turned 20 in March of this year. Exum followed closely behind in July.
As long as they go all-in on the prescribed regimen of the Bucks and Jazz medical and training staffs, build up those quad and hamstring muscles which support the knee and don’t come back too soon, there’s no reason to believe the potential of either has been negatively impacted by this hiccup.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.